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The Edinburgh Fringe now insists on artistic control of all shows’ promotion

Comedian Lewis Schaffer lost his shirt staging Fringe shows.

In 2009, I staged a show at the Edinburgh Fringe titled Aaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s Bollock Relief! – The Malcolm Hardee Award Show. No-one batted an eyelid. More’s the pity.

Not when the title appeared in full in the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Not when flyers were handed out in the street. Not when posters appeared in the refined streets of Edinburgh.

No-one cared about the word “bollock” back then.

But yesterday, in an online response to a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News about censorship in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme, comedian Jackson Voorhaar wrote:

A quote in my blurb was actually censored to “the b*st*rd offspring of Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding”. Surely in that context bastard is a perfectly legitimate and inoffensive term?

My last couple of blogs have been about the Edinburgh Fringe Programme’s new-found puritanism where, for example, Richard Herring’s show Talking Cock (which had no problem in 2002) now has to be printed as Talking C*ck in the Fringe Programme because it might offend someone – despite the fact that, in August 2012 (as was the case in August 2002), large posters will festoon the billboards of Edinburgh saying Talking Cock and random pedestrians will be given A5 flyers advertising Talking Cock.

Vivienne Soan of London’s Pull The Other One comedy club talked to me yesterday about the title of the Stuart Goldsmith show, which the Fringe has insisted cannot be listed as Prick but has to be listed as Pr!ck. Vivienne sensibly said: “I think that, at first sight, they look like the same word… but actually the latter is slightly funnier/cleverer. Therefore,” she added a tad mischievously, “the Fringe programme are also insisting on artistic contro!”

She raises an interesting point here.

As Richard Herring told me: “Underneath the silliness and twatdom it’s a very important issue.” And it is.

Last night Mervyn Stutter, who has been staging Fringe shows for 26 years, asked me about the Charlie Chuck listing which the Fringe this year objected to as being “ungrammatical”.

“Strangely,” Mervyn told me, “I find that more sinister because it will affect so many more people with perfectly safe show titles.”

The 40 word Fringe Programme entry is an advertisement for each performer’s Fringe show. It is an ad paid for by the performer. It costs almost £400. So, if you use all 40 words, it costs £10 per word. If you used only 20 words, it would cost £20 per word.

Mervyn Stutter says: “If we pay £400 then we should choose exactly the wording we want. If it doesn’t ‘make grammatical sense’ then what happens next? An angry letter to the Fringe from an audience member demanding better grammar or just that we – the performers who pay for it – lose some audience?”

This is the key point.

Does the Guardian tell Renault it has to change the wording for a new car ad because it does not conform with the Guardian’s own ‘house style’? Does Exchange & Mart or eBay tell advertisers their ads are ungrammatical or must be changed into an appropriate house style?

The Fringe Programme is perfectly entitled to have a house style for its own wording. But not for paid advertisements. Occasionally, in the past, the Royal Bank of Scotland has taken out ads in the Fringe Programme. Were these vetted by the Fringe for proper grammar and checked for adherence to the Fringe Programme’s own house style? Bollocks. They were not.

Part of the blurb for absurdist comedian Charlie Chuck’s new show Cirque du Charlie Chuck mentioned above (trying to make every £10 work count) was submitted as:

Charlie Chuck back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant.

The Fringe changed this to (the capitalisation is mine to show the changes):

“Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant.”

The Fringe insisted: “These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.”

Note they said “are required”. Not suggested. Required to be added.

When queried about this, Fringe Publications Manager Martin Chester confirmed that “as long as your copy… is grammatically correct… it can be run.”

His full explanation was:

“As long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.”

There are two points here…

  • What does it matter if it is ungrammatical? If an act were to pay the Fringe £400 to run a badly-written Fringe entry which made the show look bad, the performer seem illiterate and it persuaded punters NOT to come to the show, that is entirely the act’s problem. The Fringe officers – if they are hanging around and have loads of time on their hands – might kindly suggest the entry could be improved. But, if they are taking £400 simply to print the ad, then (provided the wording is legal and ‘decent’ by their standards) the English grammar contained within the ad is nothing to do with them. And…
  • Why do £400 paid-for ads come within the Fringe Programme’s house style at all?

A house style exists to homogenise the style of a publication created by a single entity.

It is reasonable that a document or publication written by the Fringe itself should have a house style.

It is unreasonable that a Programme listing hundreds of separate £400 paid-for ads in which individual performers are trying to uniquely distinguish their own show from the (literally) thousands of other shows should have all the £400 paid-for ads homogenised into a single style.

It is artistic nonsense. It is financial nonsense.

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that comedian Jody Kamali told me that the Fringe Office “said I couldn’t use three dollar signs in a row ‘$$$’ in my Fringe entry, as it didn’t fit their ‘house style’.”

Call me innocent, but to have $$$ in your show title is not going to offend any man, woman or child who reads it. I fail to believe it will psychologically damage or morally offend anyone. I am unaware of $$$ being any obscure sexual term and I somehow think the Fringe’s own imposed C*ck and Pr!ick are a tad more objectionable than $$$.

What insanity is ruling at the Fringe this year?

This all seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe Programme exists. It seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe exists, the opposite of what the ‘open to all’ nature of the Edinburgh Fringe itself is supposed to be.

Performers and acts are not invited to the Fringe. Anyone can perform anywhere. You just have to arrange it yourself. The Fringe as an entity (the Fringe Office) does not stage, produce or directly promote the shows.

It can cost, over-all, around £7,500 to stage a fairly average Fringe show – venue costs, accommodation, promotion (including £400 to write Fringe Programme’s 40 words) etc etc.

100% of this is paid for by the performers.

The Fringe does not pay for the shows. The Fringe does not pay for the £400 show listings within the Fringe Programme.

So why does the Fringe claim that the £400 small ads (because that is what they are) within the Fringe Programme have (in the words of the man in charge) to “adhere to the style guide” and be “grammatically correct”?

In the Edinburgh Evening News yesterday, Neil Mackinnon, Head of External Affairs for the Fringe, said:

“It is not for us to vet the content of anyone’s shows – that’s one of our principles”.

Well, he is talking bollocks. And they are not even disguised, Photoshopped bollocks.

The Fringe are vetting the content of the ads people pay £400 to run. And not just for what they now (but did not in previous years) regard as ‘rude’ words. According to the Fringe’s own Publications Manager, the paid-for £400 non-rude words are vetted because they have to conform with the “style guide” – no use of $$$ in a title, for example – and be “grammatical”. Why?

The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

In effect, the Edinburgh Fringe are now insisting on artistic control of the promotion of all Fringe shows. And charging performers £400 for the privilege not to have control of their own advertising.

The people who think of themselves as ‘good guys’ have turned into ‘rip-off’ merchants.

American comic Lewis Schaffer (who is staging two shows at this year’s Fringe – that means two Fringe Programme entries at £394 each) commented on a blog I wrote a couple of days ago:

“Next year I am not going to register my show with the Fringe and instead I will spend the money more effectively by paying the first 700 punters £1 each to come into my show. Or enrol everyone who comes to my show in a £700 lottery. Or spend £700 extra pounds buying drinks for the other acts bled dry by the Fringe Society.”

He may not be joking.

And he has a point.

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How to finance a show at bottomless money pits like the Edinburgh Fringe

My elfin stand-up comedy chum Laura Lexx (she really did once work as an elf in Lapland) is going to the Edinburgh Fringe with multiple shows again this year and the problem as always is that playing the Fringe is (in the words of a comedian whom I have embarrassingly forgotten) like standing in a cold shower tearing up £20 notes.

As well as being a stand-up, Laura has her elfin toe dipped in ‘legit’ theatre. Her company is called Spun Glass Theatre. Last year, they played the Edinburgh Fringe for a second time and played the Brighton Fringe and branched out into school entertainments and – I love reading a bit of good creative PR speak – “completed development on a truly original piece of theatre”.

You Left Me in the Dark is, according to the blurb, “a piece of new writing inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull which explores the themes of abandonment and devotion… The music of Florence + the Machine reflects the passionate nature of the characters’ love affair with each other and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”

Frankly, I see few openings for knob gags in that – I am a simple man with simple tastes – but Chekovian drama has its followers.

The brain-stumper, though, is how do you finance a trip which you have to assume may result in a 100% financial loss – which is how any trip to the Edinburgh Fringe may end however good the project is – although, with luck, you may break even and fame and fortune may follow?

One route is ‘crowd funding’ which Spun Glass Theatre enterprisingly and successfully tried last year. There are websites like WeDidThis.org.uk which allow members of the public to donate money to artistic endeavours. If the company reaches their target for donations within a specified short period, they get to keep the money and give rewards to those who donated. If they fail to reach their target, they do not get the money and the people who have pledged pay nothing.

This year, Spun Glass Theatre is trying to raise £1,000 and the deal is that, if you cough up anything from £5 to £20, you get a variety of rewards from free tickets to free workshops to original artwork. And the money goes to funding the planned show.

“We regularly apply for funding via other routes,” Laura tells me, “but the numbers applying mean it is almost impossibly competitive. Crowd funding gives you the chance to be more proactive than just continually spending all your time writing applications and poetry.

“And I think crowd funding is a good test of whether you’re making something which has some appeal. If people won’t fund it being made (for rewards) how are you going make the project seem attractive enough to sell tickets?”

Of course, any project is in competition with all the other projects on a crowd funding site to get money. But, Laura says:

“We’re already half way to our target on our WeDidThis page and kicking the ass of everybody else that’s in the running this month, so we stand a good chance of getting there! We’ve only got a fortnight to go, though..”

Well, I’ve coughed-up.

I admire enterprising elfin chutzpah.

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